When the Phillies held the 10th-anniversary celebration of the 2009 National League champions two weekends ago, it wasn’t lost on anyone in the organization that one of the loudest, warmest receptions from the crowd was given to a 75-year-old baseball lifer who didn’t swing a bat that season.
Things turned out well here for Charlie Manuel and the fans haven’t forgotten. For a manager as countrified as Manuel, losing means you are labeled an unlettered bumpkin and winning means you are a folksy genius. The same people who accused Manuel of being unable to fathom a double-switch in 2005 showered him with adoration as he rode down Broad Street with the World Series trophy three years later.
Not much has changed since. Even as the team disintegrated around him in his final seasons as manager, Manuel was held blameless, and departed as the most beloved guy to hold that position since, not coincidentally, Dallas Green. Winning, it turns out, is great for the resume.
The Phillies’ brass took a good look around recently and noticed that the current team isn’t particularly well-liked, and also that the offense is underperforming compared with its spring expectations. The cheers for the 2009 celebration died away during the team’s dreadful 2-5 road trip, but the front office could still hear them. So, enter Charlie Manuel as the Phils’ new hitting coach. Two birds, one stone.
It isn’t as if fans are going to come to the ballpark solely to see Manuel sitting in the dugout, but the organization desperately needed to generate warmer feelings toward a team that is a quart low on personality, and is failing to overcome that deficit with consistent play. School is going to open soon, and the Phillies were facing the prospect of a quiet, depressing September if things kept going as they were.
There’s nothing wrong with trying something as opposed to trying nothing. Except from the perspective of John Mallee, the former hitting coach, there’s no downside. Manuel will work the final 43 games of the season and he’ll preach the fundamentals of what he considers a good approach and a good swing and, assuming the players listen, at least a new voice will be heard. Where’s the harm? If the fans are also subliminally more connected to the team, that is a bonus for the organization.
A major-league team, however, goes through the long grind of a season like an ocean liner churning steadily through the waves, and it is similarly difficult to change course quickly once under way. After 120 games, the ship isn’t going to adjust its headings perceptibly, and Manuel’s influence will probably be more in the nature of offering encouragement rather than overhauling a batter’s swing.
“I think the environment can be different as far as just talking to guys and letting them talk to me,” Manuel said before Wednesday’s game. “It might take me a while. I plan on talking to all of them. I feel like I know them, but I can definitely get to know them personally better. I think we’ve got some hitters on our team. If we do it just a little bit better, it’s going to help us.”
Baseball aside, the move is great from a public relations level, and, since it was presented as merely a six-week stint for Manuel, that is how it should be viewed.
The Phillies are still deeply committed to the modern analytics of hitting. The controlling owner is committed. The team president is committed at least by proxy. The general manager is committed. The manager is committed. Manuel, on the other hand, is conversant with the concepts, but he is far from committed to them.
“Most of the guys that go up to the plate try to hit home runs,” Manuel said. “If I could get all the Hall of Fame guys that I just saw last week and line them up in the dugout, and let the players walk down and talk to them, and let the players ask them, ‘[Did] they try to hit home runs?’ They’d probably get a ‘no’ answer.”
The Phillies as an organization are not going to abandon their allegiance to the modern swing plane, however, or the advanced metrics that often prize a well-intentioned strikeout over a base hit. The players know that.
Hopefully, they will be open-minded about learning from Manuel, but they also know his tenure will be brief and the next hitting coach will again have a calculator in his back pocket.